Grant Horner:

If there is a God, one whom we naturally (and rightly) should fear; and if we have suppressed this truth, as Romans 1 says we have; and if, as I am arguing in this book, powerful truths such as these cannot and do not remain suppressed, then perhaps we now have a way of understanding the business and art of fear for pleasure. If God (and fear of him) has been removed from the forefront of our conscious minds, yet we are “built to fear” something infinitely greater than ourselves, something awesome, terrifying, mysterious, and incomprehensible, then we find ourselves predisposed to replace fear of him with fear of something.

The full-blown abject terror of an infinite God—unmediated by grace—would be overwhelming and impossible to bear. And try as we might, we cannot entirely vanquish our sense of God or our creeping fears regarding him. The fear is inescapable. It is also unbearable. The only thing we can do is develop techniques to cope with the fear, just like a mountain climber or a skydiver does. The fear has to be managed—it has to be controlled. Uncontrolled fear is crippling. I believe that one way this management can be undertaken (and it can be done very effectively) is through storytelling. Fiction is a management tool through which suppressed truths slowly reemerge in bits and pieces, chunks and tatters, despite our attempts to bury the way the world really is. Narrative in general, and the very powerful, reality-replacing narrative art of film, can present to us an entirely convincing object of fear that has nevertheless been controlled, tamed, and reduced to a manageable package. One moment we are petrified in the dark theater—the next we are walking to the coffee shop laughing with our friends. Not so with deity. . . .

For a believer, fearing God is a sublime, deep pleasure. That is what the ultimate fear is—pleasurable. It is not supposed to be negative, uncomfortable, or debilitating, but rather edifying by showing us who and what we are in terms of an almighty and infinite being. The fear of God, ironically, is not fearful for a Christian. Because we are wired to gain pleasure from the fear of God, yet as a race we do not so fear him, we find ourselves in the rather perverse position of experiencing certain pleasures coming to us in the form of highly manufactured and densely controlled fears packaged as entertainment. I believe this is why “fear for pleasure” has become such a profitable sector of the film industry. We want to have something to fear, and yet we want to maintain control over that fear, to limit that fear within prescribed boundaries, which we can never do in the case of the “fear of the Lord.” Fearing God cannot be bounded, yet we can trust his care and love for us, his promise that he will not harm us. The precise opposite is the case in horror films: the evil entity wants to harm us—but we can control it, because we know it isn’t real.

—Grant Horner, Meaning at the Movies (Crossway, 201), pp. 130, 131-132.

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8 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Fear (Or, Why We Like to Be Scared at the Movies)”

  1. Don Sartain says:

    Very interesting premise…

    So, we love to be scared to death when it’s in our control because it alleviates the deep fear of God that we can’t control, but can’t avoid. Thought provoking…

  2. Gordan says:

    Stephen King has contended that horror fiction is the “most Puritanical” form of writing. He was refering to the recurring theme in horror, wherein the human moral monster is sure to get his from the actual monster first. The ghost haunts his own killer until justice is served. The scantily clad teenagers doing the under-aged drinking and premarital sex are the ones the axe-weilder will take out first, etc.

    That notion of King’s dovetails with this post, if we narrow the definition of unregenerate fear of God to what it really is: a nagging, unrelenting fear of punishment.

    1. Loren Eaton says:

      I’ve always been fascinated by that quote of King’s. However, I think he may be only half right. A good deal of horror is fairly “conservative,” for lack of a better word. Consider Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, which Brian Godawa has rightly praised for its take on the problem of evil. It’s an example of — dare I say it? — good horror. But there are plenty of writers and directors who revel in nihilistic dread. Anything by Eli Roth would be a good example. In the end, the genre seems to polarize, producing some works that are excellent and others that are abominable.

  3. Thanks for sharp insights.

  4. Jason says:

    As much as I like the sentiment of the the thesis, I have to equate it to the like of C.S Lewis’ stipulation that animals don’t really feel pain – it only appears that they do (I think that’s what he said, it’s been awhile since that read). Anyways, I’m not sure if we can deduce our enjoyment of fear to a suppressed element in fallen humans… There are many things that are screwed up that we like that simply may just be carnal (I don’t maintain that as truth but it could be), a great example would be “Wipeout Montages”. Who of us doesn’t live watching a surfer, biker, snowboarder just eat crap and roll (but we always want thing to be ok)? I remember watching skate boarders on videos grinding on hand rails and always laughed my brains out when some dude would split the rail and crack his eggs… You follow what I’m saying?

  5. James says:

    For a believer, fearing God is a sublime, deep pleasure. That is what the ultimate fear is—pleasurable. It is not supposed to be negative, uncomfortable, or debilitating, but rather edifying by showing us who and what we are in terms of an almighty and infinite being. The fear of God, ironically, is not fearful for a Christian…Most Christians sadly have know idea of the Biblical meaning “The fear of God” “The fear of the Lord” know idea at all.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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